Two weeks ago today my sweet dog got hit by a car. He was my crazy, protective, energetic fur baby that would let my toddler man-handle him like he was her personal teddy bear. I still don’t understand what happened and I still ache thinking about it. The worst part of the whole ordeal was that my non-verbal 15 month old daughter very clearly asked “Where’s Rowdy” that night. Explaining death to a child is not easy. Explaining death to a toddler is harder. Explaining death to a non-verbal toddler is the worst. How do you tell your child that the dog behind her first words, first sentence, and first steps is never going to be a part of her life anymore? How do you explain the death of a pet to her? How do you cope? How do you help them cope?
While I am obviously no expert, there has been a lot of learning, growing, and healing in the past fourteen days. While I am still in tears as I type this, I have come a long way in the past two weeks. I can talk about it and I can be “ok” with experiencing feelings and emotions. While this post is about explaining death to a child, it’s also about how I, as an adult, worked through complicated emotions and have learned to cope with the death of my favorite pet.
Explaining Death to a Child: Ways of Coping
One of the best things we can do for ourselves and for our kids is to cry. It’s a normal and healthy response to a sad situation. Show them the emotions you are feeling and show them that you are not afraid to share that with them. Instead of putting emotions up on a shelf and not dealing with them, I feel like it is important to let our kids know that to grow, we have to feel.My daughter experienced my pure grief for the first time after I found our dog in the street. I cried. I sobbed. I screamed. I shut down. While she was shocked and didn’t know how to react, that night when she realized that Rowdy was gone, she started sobbing. It was a normal emotional response and she was feeling grief. We were able to hold her, comfort her, and tell her it was ok.
Envision your lost pet with you.
Obviously this should be one of your first ways to cope and help your kids cope. It’s incredibly important that your children know that it’s not only ok to feel, but that it’s also ok to remember. Most pet owners spend time cuddling and crying with our fur babies when we are upset. My daughter and I cried together as I talked to Rowdy as if he was there grieving his own death with us.
In the midst of grieving is remembering. Losing a pet means losing future memories and experiences and that’s part of the pain. The day Rowdy died he and Cassie played with each other. They ran around the living room and she tugged on his tail. They jumped and pounced and loved each other. It’s a beautiful memory and one I will never forget. I am thankful for it along with many other beautiful and happy memories.Sit down as a family and talk about all the great things you loved about your pet. We laughed as we remembered the time he ate 4 pairs of underwear and how he would pace the window sill when he knew we were going on vacation. We talked about the quirky things Rowdy did that seemed so people-like and how he was truly a part of our family. The highs and lows of emotions from telling stories helped us cope. We knew we had lost him, but we had so many wonderful memories to treasure that we knew we would never lose.
Take Pictures/Go Through Pictures.
Rowdy was an indoor dog with extremely thin fur and would shake and shiver on a 50 degree day outside. Therefore, we had little jackets for him to keep him warm. We were never “that” family that dressed our dogs up, which always made it seem so funny when we would put one on him. There was one that was a professor’s jacket and it made us laugh every time he wore it. I decided to take pictures of my daughter and our surviving dog with that jacket to have one last picture of them together.
As odd as it sounds, taking pictures of this and of his tags has really helped us all. It’s a little bit of closure for us.Spend time looking at pictures you have of your pet. Discuss that he was a well-loved pet, but that he has died and won’t be coming back. I showed pictures to Cassie telling her that we would remember him and he would live in our minds, but that he would not be around to play.
Write Notes to Your Lost Pet.
If I was honestly going to evaluate the life of my dog, I feel regret for the last 15 months of his life. Once my daughter entered this world, he was dethroned. Though this is normal, the feeling that I did not give him the love and attention he deserved still broke my heart. For me, writing a letter to him and writing a letter to him from my daughter helped heal that time. It helped me thank him for the life he lived and for being a part of our family.For my husband, I think this was one of the best things we did to cope. Rowdy was never his dog, but he was who protected his wife. To be able to thank him for loving his wife and daughter was important.
For us, we decided to cremate and these notes went with him which has been so healing for me to know that my words will always be a part of him and with him.I think that writing a letter to a lost pet would also offer older kids some closure. As humans, we need to be able to have the last word. Expressing our emotions and feelings to those we love and have lost helps us feel as if we are connecting with them one last time. Explaining death to a child and telling them that the pet is never coming back seems so much easier when they feel like they are writing a letter to their pet even if they are to never see them again.
Decide as a family how to bury your pet. I personally think that it should be a family decision to decide what to do with a pet’s remains. This is also something to research. For us, we decided that we did not want to bury our dog because 1) we were unsure if it was legal in our city and did to want to find out the hard way and have to go through everything a second time 2) because he did not die of natural causes he was disfigured and finally 3) I honestly had a weird feeling of knowing that my dog would be decaying in the ground in my backyard. So for us, cremating meant that everything was over in a day and that he was not left disfigured.
While I had never considered cremation and was originally put off by the idea, it is something that has helped me personally cope. It felt like I helped “right a wrong”. I cared enough about him and that he was a life to be cherished and honored and I did not want to know that he was disfigured or just left and buried, whereas whoever hit him, left him and did not stop. That, obviously, is a personal circumstance, but one that has been heavy on my heart. I also love that now I have a beautiful box that he came home in. Once I decide, we will either bury the box or sprinkle the ashes and keep his tags in the box.
As of right now, he sits at the corner of my desk, just as if he was sitting at my feet. I have peace knowing that in his final resting place he was “buried with our notes of love and in his professor’s jacket.If you think your child is old enough and/or can handle it, let them see the pet at burial. It is further closure of the death of the pet. My husband took Rowdy into the cremation building himself because I could not do it and because I had our other dog and daughter in the car. And though I did not think I wanted to see it, he took a picture of Rowdy in his vest laying in the cremation chamber. It pains me and is a wrench on my heart to think of this image because it’s affirmation that he is gone; however, it’s an image that I cherish in my mind because he looks so peaceful which is in stark contrast to how I found him.
Do something to Honor Your Lost Pet.
Because Rowdy died suddenly, unexpectedly, and because of getting hit by a car, we decided to do something to help prevent something like it from happening to someone else.
The day that Rowdy got hit I remember being so angry. I was angry because it should not have happened. I was angry because there were no skid marks. I was angry because no one stopped. I was angry because it could have been my daughter.
Therefore, my daughter and I sat down and made a sign for our front yard. It reads “Please slow down for the safety of our kids and pets. In loving memory of Rowdy”. The last thing I would ever want to happen is for my daughter to run in the street unexpectedly. I commonly get her out of her car seat and let her walk to the door while hold my hand. But what if she let go? What if she saw something in the street and ran out there?
Ultimately Rowdy died because someone was going too fast. If just one car slows down in my neighborhood each day that drastically reduces the chances of another dog, or heaven forbid, a child getting hit on our road. It is the absolute best way for us to honor him and it was one of the best ways for our entire family, including Cassie, to cope. We posted it in our yard directly in line with where I found Rowdy in the road. For 2 days after we put it our, we would occasionally hear someone honking outside of our house as if to thank us for the reminder to slow down.
If your pet died of natural causes, consider doing something like donating some toys or dog beds to a local animal shelter or buying their favorite treat and giving it to someone. Maybe it means going to a favorite dog park, making a picture memorial wreath, or some other idea to help remember and honor the life of your pet. When I had a pet die after getting terminally ill, we planted a flower on his grave and it blooms every year around the time of his birthday which has always been a part of healing for me.
Take a day or 2… or 3…
Losing anyone in your family takes time to heal. Take a few days and try to not think about it. Get out of the house and away from where they died. This is NOT about forgetting them. This is about experiencing emotions besides suffering, grief, loss, and pain. Negativity only breeds more negativity; therefore, you and your family have to snap out of it before you can more on with remembering. For a few days, we visited parks and did things that were fun around town so that we did not have to sit in our sorrow.
Imagine Your Future Life.
Discuss as a family what your future life looks like. Does this mean adding a new pet to the family? If so, when?
If you decide that you would like another pet, discuss the qualities that you loved about the pet you had.It’s important to have a game plan. For us, Rowdy meant protection. These walls did not feel like a home without him here. Though we still had Fritz, he’s no guard dog. We knew that we wanted to get another dog in a relatively short time frame and one that would be a gentle companion to me, but also a protector of our family. We researched breeds to help us decide what we would look for in the shelters.
Remember, you are NOT replacing your pet. The pet you lost can never be replaced and getting a new one should not be looked at as a replacement. It is about moving forward and about family as a future.
Visit a Local Shelter.
Even if you decide that getting another pet is not right for your family at this time, visiting a shelter can be a part of the healing process for your family and your kids. Just knowing that there are other animals that want to be loved and a part of a home is comforting. A few days after Rowdy died we visited the Oklahoma City animal shelter and spent time loving on some of the dogs there. We were able to give them attention they were not used to getting and we were able to get a little bit of healing from it.Cassie loved being able to see so many dogs in one place and greatly benefited from the experience. It was time spent away from home and it was love and compassion shown to animals that needed it.
Coping as an adult is a process, and it’s a confusing experience for children. However, making the time special is just as important as the pet was in your lives.
With a heavy heart I have said good-bye to Rowdy. And with a heavier heart I have grieved and cried. I have explained death to a child. and I have grown. As a family we have grown more in the last two weeks than the two years prior. Though I would have never asked to lose my dog, I have seen great progress in our lives over fourteen days. From Rowdy’s death, we have realized our true desires, our true love as a family, and explored our future. His death forced us to talk about moving and to ask hard questions about how to raise children and teach them both safety and important life lessons. His death has now brought a new puppy into our lives that I see so much potential in. Rowdy’s death has truly been a defining moment for us as a family. And, again, while I would rather have my dog at my feet licking my toes, I have looked for and found positive outcomes from a horrible tragedy. I encourage you to do the same with your family. I am praying for you and I know how hard it is to grieve, to cope, and to explain.
Kara is an author, wife, and mother of 3 children living in Boston, MA. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and even helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!